Ukraine’s ultranationalist uprising has brought together two disparate groups: neo-Nazis and ethnic minorities.
The crisis in Ukraine turns three this month. From its outset, I was struck by how clichéd the news reports of the war were, in structure and in tone; European journalists seemed to be reporting on Ukraine as if it were an African country, and, mortifyingly, as if Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” had never happened. I wondered what would happen if the roles were reversed—if I, an Ethiopian woman, covered this European war. The conflict was said to have unleashed ultranationalist violence: as part of my preparation I hung out on Stormfront, the white-supremacist Internet forum, where I seemed to be welcome because they couldn’t tell that I’m a black intellectual. I decided that the safest way to report on these men would be to try and pass as one of them: to go in disguise as a neo-Nazi fighter. I acquired a kind of camouflage—a big coat to conceal the shape of my body, the fullest balaclava I could buy, and a wide woolly scarf to hide any skin still visible. As disguises go, it wouldn’t pass much scrutiny, but I calculated that the strength of my cover was the situation itself: they wouldn’t be expecting me. Its simplicity was its strength, and its strength was its simplicity.
I set off for Ukraine in the run-up to Minsk II, when the fighting in the east was at its worst. It was late January 2015, a couple of weeks before the doomed ceasefire deal was agreed. There had been reports of neo-Nazi battalions from the front at Donbass holding rallies in city centers. Some of these gatherings were to mark the January birthday of Stepan Bandera, a controversial World War II–era hero who’d led Ukraine’s nationalist independence movement in the 1930s, and who had spent time as a Nazi prisoner of war before being released to fight against Russia under the banner of the SS. “Be careful of any protests,” a regional security analyst had advised me, “especially if they have a right-wing slant.” Be careful.
On my first night in Kiev, I encountered a battalion of men in the streets of the city center. You heard them long before you saw them, their voices raised in ragged song, and you could see the orange glow of their flaming torches against the night skyline well before they came into view. The streets cleared to make way for them. I’d arrived at the airport just a couple of hours before and was making my way to my hotel with my bags; I didn’t know where I was; I didn’t know anyone in Kiev; and, crucially, I was not yet in disguise. I tried to hide. Then I crawled back to watch. They streamed past for several minutes, dressed all in black, their faces covered by black balaclavas. Traffic slowed, then stopped as they passed, their sonorous chant filling the air.
I didn’t recognize the white-red-white flag they bore: once safely in my hotel room, I looked it up and identified it as the flag of Belarusian nationalism, used in World War II by Belarus’s pro-Nazi administration and by Belarusian volunteer fighters in the Waffen SS. It was also widely used as an anti-Soviet symbol and had appeared in protests against Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who was brokering the ceasefire talks in Minsk. What, I asked the hotel receptionist, had the men wanted? The receptionist, hitherto bored and disdainful, softened when she saw the look on my face. “Do not be afraid,” she said with a kind smile. “Not national socialism. This is mourning the dead in Donbass. This is normal for us now.”
“Normal,” it turns out, is as much an evolving concept as “ceasefire.” Peace talks and deadlines have repeatedly triggered a surge in violence as both sides try to influence the settlement by changing the facts on the ground. The conflict began in early April 2014, when two regions in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, responded to the Euromaidan protests by claiming autonomy from a national movement that they also accuse of being allied with neo-Nazism. “We believe ourselves to be part of the Russian world in all of its diversity, and we are not European,” Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said. “If we do not act against brown-shirt tyranny today, then it will destroy us tomorrow.”
“It’s difficult for Westerners to understand, but the ideology of the fighters is of only secondary concern for people here,” Dr. Andreas Umland, senior research fellow at Ukraine’s Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation told me. “Even if this ideology is ultranationalist or neo-Nazi. Many Ukrainians’ disgust about corruption, and the chronic existential threat from Russia, override all other issues.”
I found it difficult to believe that ethnic minorities in Ukraine could feel the same. But they did, it turned out; in fact, they were joining these groups at the front. “The battalions are multiethnic and multicultural,” Dr. Mridula Ghosh, author of The Extreme Right In Ukraine, explained to me. Fighters from nearby countries were going to the front, Ghosh said, because they’d also been the targets of Russian destabilization tactics or because they hoped for support from Ukraine if Russia turned its attention to them. Ghosh cited the Georgian Legion battalion, led by the high-profile Georgian veteran Mamuka Mamulashvili. Others I spoke with told me about the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, named after the first president of Chechnya and led by the renowned Chechen military commander Isa Munayev until his death in Donbass in February 2015. A contact in Kiev quoted a startling remark and directed me to its source, Natan Chazin, a former fighter in the Azov battalion—a militia that the U.S. Congress tried to block from receiving military aid because of its far-right ideology and SS-like regalia. I contacted Chazin on Facebook and asked him about his experience of being a Jew in a battalion associated with neo-Nazism. Months later, he responded: “If it’s still an issue, we can talk.” “Is this something you said?” I asked him. “‘If there are Nazis, they are my Nazis; I’ll judge them, not you.’ ” He replied with an emoji: thumbs up.
The Ukrainian government is in an impossible position: it cannot call the conflict a war, because that would be an obstacle to its application to join the EU and its eligibility for desperately needed IMF loans. And so civilian militias and paramilitary battalions staffed by volunteers are essential to Kiev’s ability to protect its borders. Also forcing the government’s hand is the urgent need for security-sector reform. One of the demands of the Euromaidan protesters had been lustration—the removal of corrupt Soviet-era officials—and with the fall of Yanukovych, swathes of civil servants had been sacked or had resigned. Many of the volunteers from the front at Donbass have more experience with combat or security operations than the police and military personnel.
In November 2014, a former deputy commander of Azov and former parliamentary candidate for the nationalist Svoboda party, Vadim Troyan, was appointed police chief of Kiev region, despite having no policing experience: local human-rights groups called the move “disastrous.” “We have to judge Svoboda by the legislation they pass,” Ghosh told me when I asked. “Our biggest concern is that because of the war, revolutionary momentum will slow down and police torture won’t be tackled—which was a major problem in Ukraine under the former security services.”
It’s hard to comprehend the kind of police failure that could make such an accommodation desirable. According to a report by the East European Development Institute, although up to 21 percent of visible minorities in towns across Ukraine claimed that they or their family or friends had been the victims of a personal attack from other citizens, as many as 85 percent claimed police harassment. Umland offered context on the appointment of a figure like Troyan: “For many people here the important questions are: Does this man take bribes—no? And is he willing to die to protect us—yes? Then he is a good man, and his political beliefs are not important.”
None of the ethnic minority community leaders I spoke to mentioned neo-Nazi fighters as a priority—or even as a concern. In one of central Kiev’s underground shopping centers, I met with Zola Kondur, the president of Chiricli Roma Women’s Foundation. “Our biggest concern is the treatment of Roma people at emergency shelters for refugees from Donbass,” Kondur told me. “People are afraid to identify themselves as Roma when they register for help because of the discrimination they’ll face after the war. Roma people have been returning to Donbass because they couldn’t find accommodation and work elsewhere. They preferred to stay in a dangerous region, but at least at home.”
Ghosh, an Indian national, saw the devastation of Ukraine’s economy as a welcome opportunity for reorientation. “Euromaidan was an economic revolution, a protest against economic injustice, driven by the middle classes,” Ghosh explained. “There is much greater solidarity now between white Ukrainians and ethnic minorities here because this time we’ve all been shut out. Earlier, only ethnic minorities had been shut out, and the white Ukrainian middle class had not yet started protesting.”
Others were even more optimistic about intercultural relations. “Some Ukrainians used to view African people as violent and lazy, because of wars and ineffective governments in our countries of origin,” Issa Sadio Diallo, the vice president of the NGO African Council in Ukraine, told me. “They judged the individuals negatively just because of the political situation of the country. I think their experiences of similar things now will help them view us differently. Ukraine is taking baby steps in the journey of independence, of dealing with international organizations; African countries have more experience of this, we can help.” Dr. Johnson Aniki, a local businessman and Nigerian community leader who had witnessed all of modern Ukraine’s revolutions, was unfazed. “Ukraine’s bankruptcy may be a blessing in disguise,” Aniki said. “People rose up against Yanukovych because of the kleptocratic capitalism. In Nigeria, the wealth of the natural resources has allowed the kleptocratic capitalism to continue. In Ukraine, there is nothing left to steal. So whether they like it or not, they’ll have to learn to govern.”
I have learned one thing: not to look down / So much on the damned. I discovered another reason why local ethnic minorities might not be concerned by parades of balaclava-wearing men waving SS banners. “Moscow’s demonization of Stepan Bandera makes his name popular among patriotic young Ukrainians,” Umland explained to me. “They call themselves ‘Banderovtsy’ and use Nazi-era symbols as a countercultural protest against the Kremlin. It’s a sort of provocation aimed at Moscow. It’s a very strange phenomenon.” Umland’s comments put me in mind of the way terms like nigger, faggot, and crip have been appropriated by some black, queer, and disabled people respectively: the defiance of it, and the frisson, as the insult is worn as a weapon against the oppressor. “The best thing I’ve ever thought of to say when somebody calls you a bitch is ‘Thank you’,” Gloria Steinem recently advised Cosmopolitan readers. “I mean, it totally disarms them. They don’t know what to do.” Some go so far as to wear symbols that are almost irrelevant, even risking eternal damnation—or at least, long-term censure—for the pleasure of antagonizing an old foe. In the iconic video for Hate Me Now, Nas lounges in a white fur ensemble worn over a tank top and tracksuit trousers while his associates spit champagne at the camera (“you can hate me / I hate you too”), imagery credited as the genesis of bling; and then he appears as Jesus at Golgotha, nailed to a cross. “There [was] a play in New York City where a black man played Jesus and caught a lot of flak,” Nas told Rolling Stone of his decision to pose as the crucified Christ. “I wanted to be crucified like Jesus in the video, to get back at all those people that don’t want to see a black man doing his thing.” It makes no sense; it makes perfect sense.
Granted, a lot needs to have happened for Nazi-era symbols to be seen as an appropriate countercultural protest: but then, a lot has happened to Ukrainians. “The war affects you,” a young human-rights activist admitted to me. “You change in ways you don’t expect. Things that are offensive and rude seem funny because of the threat we are under, society is on a different level now.” She laughed. As local in-jokes go, it has been a costly one for Ukraine, failing in international comic appeal but succeeding as international political trauma—like a tragic inversion of Mel Brooks’s The Producers.
The other public trauma and local comedy is Ukraine’s relationship with the EU and NATO. The streets around Independence Square were lined with memorials for the Euromaidan dead (here, a woman, sixty-two; there, a boy, seventeen), many of whom had been buried draped in the EU flag. There was bewilderment that although Ukraine had chosen to align with “the West,” “the West” had not reciprocated. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up its arsenal of nuclear weapons—the third largest in the world—to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The condition was that Britain, America, and Russia would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and defend Ukraine from such attacks. In Independence Square, cartoons depict the memorandum being used by Britain and America as toilet paper, and satirize NATO and “fortress Europe” idly watching as Ukraine is brutalized by Russia. “At Euromaidan we died for the idea of Europe, which, for us, means justice, rule of law, democracy, human rights,” Maria Tomak from Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties told me. “And now we are learning that the EU itself has problems—slow decision making, Russian influence on the EU parliament, and the EU’s lack of independence. Europe feels like a mirage for us now. We joke that we need another revolution.”
Mourning the dead in Donbass. Some of them are racist, certainly, neo-Nazi even. But others are not. Reviewing the ongoing failure of Minsk II at its first anniversary, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, told an audience in London that “our point is not to the win the war against Russia, it’s to not lose the war against Russia.” In an impasse like this, who should be allowed to go to the front—the ones with a civic future, or the ones waving SS banners? And would that decision be ethical?
My hotel was also the international crisis center: I discovered when I got there that there was no respite. When you turned on the TV in your room, it was to see rolling footage from the downstairs meeting rooms. One evening, I was urgently ushered into a roundtable with the prime minister, for reasons that I did not know. It occurred to me that I had been mistaken for the only other black person in the hotel—a Ugandan woman, from the UN in New York (an easy mistake to make: I didn’t wear my neo-Nazi disguise indoors)—and, on conscience, I discreetly ushered myself out. On conscience, too, I came to drop the disguise: privations were coming, and the cut and quality of my coat betrayed me as someone who wasn’t planning for them. The map of threat and vulnerability was blurred, missing its key; and I was not where I thought I’d be on it. Sometimes I watched hotel staff forlornly serving dinner and drinks to the men and women who were gathered there to decide whether their servers would be sent as conscripts to Donbass—and I wondered how either side of that transaction could endure it.
On my last night in Kiev, I found out about the massacre. “That hotel was a refuge during Euromaidan,” a female scholar remarked calmly, when I told her where I was staying. “I went there to use their Wi-Fi. There was a pile of dead bodies in the foyer—twelve or thirteen. There was sniper gunfire outside so I ran across the reception. When I got to the other side, I was covered in blood and my hands were shaking. I got online and e-mailed my family to tell them I was alright.” She looked troubled for a moment, then she changed the subject.
Immediately two things became apparent to me: one, that since Euromaidan, there had been a steady stream of death at this place, without cessation, without a chance to mourn; and two, that I, an atheist, would have to perform an exorcism. Not having a Bible with me—indeed, being wholly unprepared—back in my hotel room, I settled myself down, pierced my finger for the blood, turned off the lights, and in the darkness offered what I could remember from The Odyssey Book 11. It seemed the right choice: Odysseus travels alone to the land of the dead and there has fellowship with his dead companions, bearing witness to their lives, together mourning what they have lost, mourning the cherished foolishness of those who still live. I knew what I was doing wouldn’t be enough—Odysseus had a trough of blood to give, and besides was a soldier—but I hoped it might still count, in some minor way, in a calculus unfamiliar to me. A long time afterward, I came to understand that the grief that would assail me now and then was because I could do something for the dead but nothing for the living.
M. G. Zimeta is a writer and academic philosopher, and an honorary research associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL.